Meet the Faculty: Naila Keleta-Mae

Our “Meet the Faculty” interviews provide a window into the work lives of faculty across the University of Waterloo—and how much that work differs from person to person. We’ll talk about the day-to-day joys and struggles of academia and share tips for getting the work done and staying mentally and physically healthy in academia.

Naila Keleta-Mae from Communication Arts
Photo by Jay Parson

Naila Keleta-Mae is an assistant professor in Communication Arts who teaches courses in the theatre and performance program and the speech communication program.

What do you teach and research?

My research is focused on Black expressive culture in North America with an emphasis on Black women’s cultural production, including music, videos, performances, plays, and poetry. I teach a range of courses: from Theories of Theatre and Performance, to Gender and Performance, to Public Speaking. I also teach an Arts First course called Black and Free that is about how Black people have expressed their freedom in North America even in the midst of the violent institutionalized anti-Black racism that has plagued the continent for centuries.

What does a good day at work look like?

Teaching students a range of materials that challenge them to develop their critical self-reflexivity skills, expand their worldviews, and consider the possibilities of their agency. Having time to write and writing academic prose in a way that nods to the work of Audre Lorde in terms of its concision, accessibility, and content. I remember reading Lorde’s Sister Outsider long before I went to grad school and being aware that she was offering me other ways to think about the world, my place in it, and what I could do. I’ve aspired to do the same with my writing ever since.

Is there anything that gets you into that zone?

Sitting at my desk. I’ve got a small desk in a room at home and that’s where I’ve done the bulk of my writing as of late.

What do you get really excited about?

Contemplating good art. I’ve come to enjoy researching, writing and teaching good art and for me that’s art where artists explore an idea, a concept, a feeling, and then invite us, as an audience, to experience that exploration with them.

I approach media requests as opportunities to connect academic fields of inquiry to people’s everyday lives and to be in conversation with people who will never take my courses or read my academic publications.

What kind of service do you do?

I do some service work at the unit, department and university levels. I also do service for my profession. For example, I’ve sat on multiple adjudication committees for SSHRC and I chaired a 10-person Insight Grant committee last year. I have appreciated the opportunities to participate in a national process that has wide-ranging impact.

My service work also includes media commentating. I’m most often invited as a guest or solicited for interviews when journalists or producers want expertise around race, gender and/or popular culture. I approach those requests as opportunities to connect academic fields of inquiry to people’s everyday lives and to be in conversation with people who will never take my courses or read my academic publications.

Faculty members of colour tend to do a lot of invisible service work supporting students. Do you experience that?

Yes. Absolutely. Faculty members of colour, Black faculty members and Indigenous faculty members often do invisible service work not only in terms of supporting students but that labour extends to multiple aspects of faculty life from our departments, faculties, institutions and other professional settings. This is primarily because academic institutions and academia as a profession is much like many other professions in North America—they were not designed to support non-white people, much less those who are not male, middle class, heterosexual, or cis-gendered.

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

Not letting work consume all of my time or energy. I find this particularly challenging in this profession because there is always more research, writing, service work, and course preparation that needs to be done.

What do you love about your job?

I’ve found it more productive over the years to focus on loving my life and my job is one aspect of my life.

Pomodoros: Put that phone on do not disturb, don’t open the email, and sit down with a singular focus.

What do you do to stay healthy and balanced?

One thing that has been valuable to me is creating connections with people outside of academia. It has been incredibly beneficial to hear the ways in which the experiences of Black people who work across a host of sectors in Canada are eerily similar. It is has been helpful to know that they also have to manage the ways in which the combinations of anti-Black racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity permeate their working environments and their working lives,

Is there a particular productivity tool or practice that’s really essential for you?

For writing, it’s definitely pomodoros. Put that phone on do not disturb, don’t open the email, and sit down with a singular focus. That’s how I do the bulk of my writing.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your career?

I wish I had known how long everything takes. I wish I had known that so many aspects of this profession are incredibly slow despite how quickly the rest of society moves. It is definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

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